Fire fighter standing on burning hillside

COP28; Nature Ambition; and Carbon & Biodiversity Co-Benefits

Evan Bowen-Jones

Evan Bowen-Jones Managing Director

8 min read

The governments of the world have, again, met to discuss the fate of the world, and -depressingly – the backroom “business-as-usual oil deals” seem to have been more overtly important than ever, rather than a focus on actually saving the world, to some of the senior attendees.

COP’s current President, who also heads up the United Arab Emirates (UAE) state oil firm, is unfortunately (clearly) right in saying that there is no real plan for phasing out fossil fuels when multiple parties have obviously been so obviously reticent to sign up to anything that binds them to do so.  But he is completely, wilfully wrong in saying there’s no science behind the imperative to do so. We’re putting about 40 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere c.o. fossil fuels per year.

Fossil fuels are by far the largest contributor to global climate change. Accounting for 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90% of all carbon dioxide emissions. This will tip us over 1.5degrees C within the decade if not bought down dramatically. So, we need a better plan. But, this has to start with keeping as much oil as possible in the ground now. And, its obvious that UAE and others are attempting to continue to make as much ‘CO2 hay’ as possible whilst the sun shines (or at least before its blotted out by smoke).

With the COP28 statement now officially signed and the fact that fossil fuels and a 'transition away' (28d) from them are finally mentioned in a COP deal is historic. And many journalists are already calling this a 'significant progress' and a 'strong signal'.

However, there are several problems with the text, for example:

The text does not explicitly mention the 'phase-out' of fossil fuels.

Instead, it says 'transitioning away' and it doesn't include any binding commitments.

This means that no one will be strictly required to stop producing fossil fuels.

Given we are talking about saving lives and the urgency required, the final text SHOULD have required an immediate halt of all new fossil fuel projects.

All, terrifyingly, predictable.

What is more worrying from a Nature Based Solutions (NBS) perspective is that the likes of Bill Gates seem to be leaning much more heavily towards investment in engineered Carbon Dioxide Removals (CDR) [1]  because of the perceived limitation in permanence of ‘tree projects’ as the climate changes, the final text puts a strong focus on these 'yet-to-be proven' technologies.

And as critiques of REDD (Reducing Emissions from Degradation and Deforestation) once again do the rounds[2].  whilst more oil deals are done, and unproven technologies in their infancy like Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), biochar and enhanced weathering (some of which have significant negative potential environmental impacts, and low co-benefit value) start to take centre stage on the markets[3].

Whereas I agree we should be investing in new technologies, we can't expect everything from them, and the weighting of investment should favour proven technologies that provide wider benefits for other mass crises we are facing I.e. nature and nature...  emphasizing the importance of conserving, protecting and restoring nature in the text (33) is not enough, this needs to be hard wired and mandatory.  

Against this backdrop I have, possibly unwisely, been reading Fire Weather by John Vaillant. This book (which has won prizes and garnered great reviews) is both fascinating and appalling. I thought I knew what we’re facing, but it seems that I – as well as those at COP, and the governments they represent on our collective behalf – have little clue how bad things have already got.

Fire Weather describes how severe wildfires of previously impossible intensity have now become the increasingly frequent equivalents of mobile volcanic eruptions because of what we’ve already done to the climate.  We have seriously destabilised the climate envelope that has fostered us as a species.  We have created conditions for fire tornadoes that stretch from the vaporising Earth’s surface into the stratosphere.  Effects like these now pose increasing direct risk to us all as individuals.

However, despite the challenge fire now represents to ecosystems across the globe, what COP27 last year made very clear – as reiterated by King Charles opening COP28 – is that we can only fix the climate if we protect and restore nature. So, it was – in theory – heartening to see 9th December at COP28 earmarked “Nature Day”.

Wilder Carbon has been very deliberately developed to generate conservation-grade carbon units from restoration of native habitat. This is a must for tackling the joint ecological and climate crisis. It is true “no regrets” action. Despite this, though, it often feels like doing things in a truly nature positive way NOW, as Wilder Carbon is set up for, is like wading through small-minded laden treacle. This is particularly when it comes to dealing governmental bodies’ and their political/ bureaucratic limitations.

But what we have realised is that scaling positive action does not need to wait on, or be lead by, government IF enough people and organisations of different kinds with sufficient influence, ability, and WILLINGNESS e.g. major supermarkets, insurance companies, farmers, landlords, banks, land-owners, Universities, engineers, foresters, water companies, road builders, shareholders, conservationists, fishermen, etc. get together under the banner of NATURE AMBITION and start delivering what’s needed.

What we need for NBS is new mechanisms that are designed to capture as many co-benefits as possible through multi-habitat ecosystem restoration. These ecosystems/ landscapes need to be as ecologically dynamic as possible in order to have the best possible chance of continuing to deliver ecosystem services to people despite a changing climate.

What we cannot afford is blind adherence to older, “more established” mechanisms that don’t work now, and clearly aren’t going to work under a more climate stressed context.

The UK government is still playing catch up. So are its international peers. We cannot wait on politicians, civil servants whose hands are tied, or accountants working on their behalf. We cannot wait on investors who will only invest when they can guarantee making more profit from protecting and restoring nature, despite the existential threat to the entire economy of not taking combined nature and climate action now.

NATURE AMBITION is the way to deliver UK and Global “30x30” biodiversity targets: 30% of land and sea[4] turned over to nature to provide basic planetary life support.  We cannot have paper parks on land and at sea that deliver nothing for society other than a ‘nice view’.[5] Without these delivering maximised biodiversity, carbon, flood and drought prevention, improved water quality, etc. we immediately lose a vital string to our climate and nature bow. If the UK government’s current approach is mimicked worldwide and 30x30 isn’t made real whilst achieving net zero, we merely postpone the collapse of human society.

Wilder Carbon has calculated how use of marginal/ uneconomic farmland amounting to about 13% of the UK’s terrestrial land area will – as a minimum – deal with 17 years of UK aviation emissions[6]. It would also take us off the bottom of the global chart of the global nature depleted-ness. 

We can finesse how we measure and account for these things as we deliver them. But we cannot wait on perfect accounting and measurement before taking action. And, IF we don’t remember that we have to deliver nature recovery at a planetary level as well as limiting climate change there is a real risk that the ‘wall of finance’ that is allegedly available for NBS will leapfrog it and the money that should be spent on maintaining and revitalising natural carbon stores will be spent on engineered CDR that comes too late at best, or at worst a last ditch attempt to pay for climate symptoms once the window for precautionary and preventative action has closed.

We cannot afford for natural ecosystems to carry on liberating billions more tonnes of C02 into the atmosphere. Even if the Amazon tips into a different habitat state it will still have C02 storage value even if this is less stable. Poorly designed REDD schemes don’t mean we shouldn’t try to save the worlds rainforests, even if they’re not future rainforests

REDD must also not be conflated to totally different ‘avoided emissions’ scenarios like peat restoration projects in the UK. And NBS must not be viewed as equating to only ‘tree projects’, particularly based on antiquated low-resilience forestry. Nor must any such schemes be seen as setting the ‘high bar’.

New schemes like Wilder Carbon are learning these lessons.  We know that high biodiversity/ natural processes = higher carbon durability c.o. higher climate adaptability. We know that selling lower volumes of carbon units from a given site allows for likely ecological flux due to climate as well as data uncertainty. We realise the importance of the best possible governance around project c.o. established conservation bodies acting as project developers and assurers. We recognise that delivering quantified biodiversity at the same time as quantified carbon also enables future added value for project developers via explicitly bundled carbon and biodiversity credits. All of this is built into Wilder Carbon.

Talk to us now about buying our conservation grade carbon units. And, ignore Bill Gates.